She woke to the familiar warmth of her husband's body next to hers, but that sleepy comfort vanished with the first strangled whispers of his nightmare.
"No. Please, no."
As she had done nearly every night for the past two weeks, she waited for him to calm back into sleep. But his anxiety seemed to increase instead, and she realized he was going to wake himself up in the middle of it. He would be able to remember the dream in detail, maybe for the first time. She wasn't sure if she should try to soothe him, or let it happen. Dreamers who slept through a nightmare would not remember the terror. Maybe remembering it all was what he needed to do.
So, she let him fight his way to the surface, lying still beside him. His increasingly desperate pleas tore at her heart. In a voice she barely recognized, he begged Sherlock to shut up, stop this, please don't. Finally, he drew in a gasping breath, and she winced, bracing for the scream she was sure was coming.
Instead, he sat up in bed so abruptly that she had to bite her lip to keep from crying out in surprise. She lay frozen while he braced himself with both hands spread out behind him, elbows locked. He was shaking with adrenaline as he tried to get himself under control. A moment later, he slid carefully out of the bed and stood next to it for another minute, his breathing still quick and shallow.
The light from the streetlamps outside leaked through the curtains just enough to show her his silhouette. It was too dark for him to see that her eyes were open, so she watched him as he slowly came down from the nightmare. His shoulders stopped heaving with rapid breaths, and began to hitch. A moment later he padded across the carpet and closed the bathroom door behind him. She heard water running for several minutes, then the loo flushing, and the sound of water rushing into the sink once more. She could see light around the door and pictured him staring into the mirror.
She picked up her phone from the nightstand to check the time. It was nearly ten minutes more before the light switched off in the bathroom, and he opened the door. He stood still, letting his eyes adjust to the dark. When he started picking his way slowly back to bed, she took a steadying breath, and waited.
But he didn't come to bed. He walked to the window and opened the curtains. When several minutes passed, and it looked as if he planned to stand there the rest of the night, she sat up.
"John, are you all right?"
He answered her without turning. "Yeah, I'm good. Go back to sleep."
He had managed to cover the sound when he'd been in the bathroom, but he couldn't keep the aftermath from his voice. He had been crying hard, and swallowing it until his throat was raw. She knew that he wouldn't want her to see his face, so she settled back against the pillows.
"Come back to bed."
He didn't reply, so she tried an appeal to his protective instincts.
"Come back to bed or I'm going to get up and stand there with you all night until you talk to me." The prospect of depriving his pregnant wife of rest seemed to work.
He sighed, and lowered his head. She could picture the expression she couldn't see in the dark but knew so well. Lips pursed. Eyes closed, Jaw muscles flexing. Finally, he turned and came back to bed, slipping under the sheet she held up for him. He shoved his pillow hard into the headboard, then leaned back against it, half sitting, half lying down. He tucked his left arm behind his head, the tension in his body radiating across the small gap between them.
Mary scooted next to him and placed her hand on his chest. "Please tell me what's wrong. What were you dreaming about?"
"I don't remember."
John had always been a terrible liar, but he didn't even seem to be trying to make this one believable. Mary sighed and began to rub his chest lightly, soothing him. She waited for him to take back the lie, as she knew he would do.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The shakiness seemed to be nearly gone. "Please don't ask me to talk about it. I'm okay. Really."
Another lie. "You're not okay, John. I haven't seen you this upset since before..." She let the thought trail off. There was no need to continue. They both knew the event that had ended his nightmares. The question now was what had started them up again, but she was afraid she might know that answer, too
What had stopped the nightmares before had been a visit to Sherlock's grave, back when neither of them had known it was empty. It had been after a nightmare like this, the last in a stretch of them that had begun before she met him and had recurred once or twice a week. The first one she had witnessed was on the first night she had spent with him, and his pain had broken her heart. It was the first time they had really talked about the friend he had lost, and she began to grasp how much Sherlock meant to him. Even in death, he had remained the most important person in John's life. She had found herself feeling jealous of a dead man.
John's bitter laugh in the darkness startled her.
"Yeah, we know what stopped the nightmares. I made a complete fool of myself telling the sodding bastard's fake headstone how much I missed him. Maybe I need to go back and kick the bloody thing over and piss on it."
The anger in his voice surprised and worried her, but it might be a good sign. Not for the first time, she wished she'd paid more attention to the nuances on her nursing rounds in psychiatry. She now had two unofficial patients who could benefit. She consciously lightened her voice. "If you think it will help, just give me a minute to get dressed."
That actually drew a small chuckle, and he turned on his side to look at her in the faint illumination from the open curtains. "I don't deserve you." His voice was still raw, but softer now. "And you deserve so much more."
She cupped his cheek and felt the residue of tears. "John, I will love you as long as I live, and I wouldn't trade you for anyone on this earth. Please don't ever doubt that."
His breath hitched, and he leaned into her touch, eyes closed. "I love you more than you can possibly know." After a beat, he opened his eyes and his expression sobered. "I don't know why this is happening again, but I will work it out, I promise. Please, don't worry. And please don't ask me to talk about it." At her hesitation, he added, "I need you to trust that I can handle this, Mary. It's important."
There was so much she wanted to say. Questions that she believed would help him see what he was trying so hard to ignore. Things that would help him work out why he was doing this to himself. But she knew he needed her trust more. "Of course. When you're ready, you know I'm here."
She could feel some of the tension leave his body. He nodded, and smiled for the first time. "Thank you. Now, go back to sleep. It's after four in the morning, and we have to be up in two hours." He kissed her forehead, and turned on his back.
Mary knew he would be staring at the ceiling until the alarm went off, but she pretended to believe he was going to sleep. Ten minutes later, his breathing slowed, and she realized he really had fallen asleep. Her own chances for dozing off had been blasted away by adrenaline. What was left of the night would be spent just like this.
Should she have pushed him harder? He'd talked her out of it, and she wondered now if it was love or cowardice that made her relent. The question she was afraid he might actually answer haunted her own dreams. As with so much of their intertwined lives, the question was about Sherlock.
She had seen the emptiness in Sherlock's eyes, and she knew John had seen it, too. Sherlock told them he thought she was pregnant before either of them ever suspected, and he'd been right. No surprise there. He was almost never wrong. When John had first started telling her about him, she'd thought his memories were colored by his affection for his dead friend. She knew now that he had actually understated the wonder that was Sherlock Holmes. It was easy to see how John came to be so devoted to him, in spite of Sherlock's best efforts to be the most unlovable human on earth. It just took someone with John Watson's heart to see the man behind the facade. Not a sociopath. A mad genius that her husband loved so much that his death had nearly killed him. John would be dead, if she hadn't come along when she did. She was sure of it.
Now Sherlock was exactly where John had been, except that there was no one to save him. At the reception, at that moment when he had told them about the baby, Sherlock had finally let everything he was feeling show in his eyes, and John's reaction had been the same as it always was when emotion threatened to overwhelm his control. He had looked away, and he was still doing it, but it wasn't working. The truth found him in his dreams.
She believed that Sherlock had let John see how he felt because he knew it was his last chance. He may not have done it consciously, but the effect was the same. His hold over her husband terrified her. Not because she felt they were romantic rivals. That would have been far easier to overcome than what she was really facing. Just as she had saved John's life at the last moment, Sherlock had pulled John back from the brink after he returned from the war, damaged and hopeless. She accepted that Sherlock knew her husband better than she did, and in some ways always would. There would always be part of John's heart that belonged to Sherlock, and she could never touch it.
In a moment of selfish desperation, Sherlock had let John see how much it was hurting to lose him. No matter what, their friendship was changed forever. Sherlock would be alone, and he had let John see what it was doing to him.
That was what had brought back the nightmares. It hadn't happened immediately. John had to think about it, and try to rationalize what he'd seen. When he'd failed, the nightmares began. The reason he didn't want to talk about it with her was that there was no point. Sherlock would have to heal his own broken heart, but all three of them knew that wasn't likely to happen.
It was as hopeless a situation as any she had ever faced. For John, it was immeasurably worse. She believed in her heart that John would have been happy with Sherlock for the rest of his life, if the man had not disappeared for those two years that allowed John time to find her. She was equally sure that John would never hurt her. He would never abandon her, and he truly loved her as deeply as he claimed. It would just never be with all of his heart because part of that was spoken for long before they met.
Sherlock would never allow himself to come between them, she knew that now. She hadn't realized at first how much Sherlock loved John, and how utterly selfless that love had become. Sherlock would help her. If he knew the pain he was causing John, he would do whatever it took to stop it. In fact, he might well be the only one who could.
John turned restlessly beside her, and she reached out to soothe him. In an hour, it would be light. She closed her eyes.
Mary briefly considered using John's key to 221B, but decided it would send the wrong message. She was coming to beg for Sherlock's help, not to flaunt her place in John's life by walking into the flat uninvited. She could, at the very least, knock and wait to be admitted.
She'd told John she was coming to visit with Mrs. Hudson. It wasn't entirely a lie. She would stop and say hello, of course. They were friends now.
It was Mrs. Hudson who answered the door. "Oh, Mary. What a nice surprise!" Her smile slipped. "It is a nice surprise, I hope?"
Mary smiled. "Yes, it is. No bonfires this time."
"Oh, thank goodness for that. Can you come in for tea, or are you here to see Sherlock?" She glanced towards the stairs. "He's up there. I heard him banging around just a bit ago."
"That's good to know. I'm afraid I didn't call ahead."
Mrs. Hudson gave Mary's shoulder a motherly pat. "You go on up, dear. Stop and see me when you leave, if you have time. We'll chat." She turned and went back into her flat.
When Mary reached the top of the stairs, the door was open.
"I heard you come in," Sherlock's velvety voice drifted out from the kitchen. "Everything alright?"
She walked through to the kitchen. Sherlock was sitting at the table with a microscope in front of him. He was impeccably turned out for so early in the day, dressed in his usual dark suit and white shirt. "Everything you're asking about is fine," she smiled, managing not to lie.
His gaze sharpened, and she realized how foolish it was to try being clever with him. She cleared her throat. "John's nightmares are back, and he needs your help."
The pain that flashed in his eyes made the rest of what she had to tell him even harder. He recovered quickly, but she wondered if he already knew what was coming.
"I'm...sorry to hear that. What can I do?" His tone was perfectly even and neutral, and in total contradiction to what she suspected was going on inside.
"Can we just talk for a bit?"
He stood up. "Of course. Do you want some tea?" He went to the sink and turned on the water without waiting for her answer.
"Thank you. That would be lovely." She watched him reach for the kettle, and she could see the slight tremor in his fingers. "I'll just go sit in the living room, if that's okay."
"Of course." He didn't turn around. "I'm afraid we're missing a chair." His voice was a bit less steady that time.
She turned toward the living room, and instantly understood why his voice had sounded odd a moment ago. John's chair was gone, and the implications squeezed her heart. She had a sudden clear image of Sherlock sitting across from John's permanently vacant chair, the silent reminder of what was lost. She understood perfectly why he would have been unable to bear it being there any longer. She would have moved it out of sight, too. It made her want to cry.
"You can take my chair. I'll bring one from my desk," he called over his shoulder, voice under control once more.
Sitting in Sherlock's chair, the empty space was even more glaring, and she was anxious for him to come join her with the tea. Her imagination was far too adept at filling in the blanks of what Sherlock's life was about to become. Had already become.
He came in with two cups and set them down on the end table, then placed the desk chair facing her and sat with his back ramrod straight, ready for whatever she had come to tell him. He picked up his tea and sipped. "So, tell me how I can help."
She had an irrational urge to scream at him to drop the pose and just show her what he was feeling. Instead, she cleared her throat. "Sherlock, are you alright?" She hadn't meant to ask that question, but she found that she sincerely wanted to hear his answer.
He studied her for a moment. "Mary, what's really going on?"
She took a breath and let it out slowly. "If I asked you what would hurt John more, seeing you or not, what would you say?"
The pain flashed in his eyes again. "Are you saying I have a choice?"
"I'm saying that I really don't know the answer, Sherlock. That's why I asked."
He narrowed his gaze, wrinkling the bridge of his nose. "You think his nightmares are because of me? Why? Because I came back? John and I have talked about this. At your house. What changed?"
She hesitated, but the question might help him understand. "Why did you remove John's chair?"
He pulled in a sharp breath as if she physically punched him in the gut instead of throwing the emotional dagger that just landed. "It was in the way," he finally managed to answer, but the hit was in his voice, too.
Mary bit down on her lip. This was so much worse than she had expected, she wasn't sure she could continue. "I don't want to hurt you, but I won't let John be hurt, either. He would do anything to avoid hurting you, but he would also do anything to avoid hurting me. Do you see the problem?"
He frowned. "No, honestly I don't."
She sighed. "He didn't know how much this was going to hurt you. Now that he does, it's making him miserable, and there's nothing I can do about it."
"What are you talking about? I'm fine. John knows that."
His tone was so convincing that, for a moment, she doubted her own premise. And then she noticed that he was biting down on the inside of his cheek.
"Sherlock, you know when that changed. At the wedding reception, just after you told me I was pregnant. You dropped your defenses completely for a few seconds, and John saw it. Obviously, so did I. I don't think you meant him to, but he did, and it changed everything. Somehow, he had believed until that moment that you were fine with him moving on with me. He knows now that isn't true, and it's killing him all over again."
Sherlock picked up his tea, but just looked at it for a moment, then set it back on the table. "How do I know you've interpreted the data correctly? When John and I talked, everything was fine."
Sherlock repeating himself unknowingly, as he clearly was, worried her. "Sherlock, it was fine before the wedding. It was fine before he realized how much you're being hurt."
"And your solution is for me to disappear from his life? Didn't we try that approach two years ago? I've been told that didn't go well here at home."
Those unearthly blue eyes were fixed on her so intently that she could almost feel it on her skin. "I don't know what the solution is. You know him better than anyone. I'm asking you to devote that deductive genius to this problem, and tell me what we need to do. If you believe in your heart that remaining in his life is best, I won't doubt you. I just need you to be honest with yourself. Don't consider what's best for you, Sherlock. Not this time."
His eyes turned from unearthly to pure ice, but they were warmer than his voice. "I have never knowingly put anyone or anything ahead of John, and I never will. If the best approach is for me to stay away, I assume you will want to offer some explanation?"
She actually felt a shiver down her back. "Whatever you want me to say."
He rose and walked to the window. "I will be in touch."
She got to her feet. "Thank you, Sherlock. I know you care about him as much as I do. I know you'll do the right thing." She waited a moment, then headed for the door when he did not respond. She turned back to him when she reached it. "I'm sorry."
He didn't acknowledge her, and she gave up.
Mrs. Hudson didn't come out of her flat when she came downstairs, and Mary wondered if she'd heard them talking. Old houses were funny that way. Sound bounced in surprising ways. Mary wondered if she'd lost two friends instead of just one.
End of chapter one